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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is a capella singer and debut author Paul Connolly @ACappellaPaul
Soundtrack by The Beatles, Van Morrison, The Beach Boys, Thomas Tallis, John Barry
The Fifth Voice is about the power of music and friendship, and the incredible influence both can have on our lives. The four main characters are struggling in various ways with what life has thrown at them (an illness, a betrayal, a bereavement, a mid-life crisis), but when they sing together none of that matters. Together they embark on a journey of self-discovery and self-healing, as they go in search of the mysterious and elusive Fifth Voice.
My very first memory is hearing Help! by The Beatles playing in an amusement arcade when I was just five. Listening to the song as an adult, I remember what it was like to feel happy and carefree as a child on holiday, being transported by music for the very first time. Coincidentally, John Lennon said he wrote the song at a time when he’d completely lost himself and was harking back to when he was much younger and everything in life was much simpler.
Aside from the obvious connection (four singers), The Beatles inspired The Fifth Voice by providing two of the protagonists, Vince and Danny, with the material for their opening dialogue, arguing about their favourite albums around a pub table. They don’t see eye-to-eye when it comes to The Beatles, Vince referring to the Sergeant Pepper album as ‘a pile of over-contrived, trippy nonsense’. Danny hits back by informing his friend that ‘when Sergeant Pepper was released, Kenneth Tynan in The Times said it was a decisive moment in the history of Western civilization’. And so the tone is set for the emerging friendship between the two.
Oh, and there’s dance too
One of my own favourite albums is Astral Weeks by Van Morrison, which features the song Ballerina. It’s a haunting evocation of a love unrequited, or perhaps broken in some way. Listening to it, I get a sense of fragility, of a man who is yearning for this perfect vision of a woman to be his. The fact that I was once married to a ballet dancer means that those feelings have the ring of truth, and both the song and my personal experience compelled me to include a character in the book who was once a ballet dancer.
Margaret, the mother of Neil (another of the quartet) is a smart, sensitive, worldly and compassionate lady of a certain age. She has suffered the loss of her eldest son, which both she and Neil are struggling to come to terms with. She has every right to be bitter, but instead she throws all her energies into looking after her husband and remaining son, helping local charities, and running a ballet class for the senior citizens of her village. In her early years she lived a rarefied and exotic life as a dancer in Paris and was, without doubt, held in as much esteem as the ballerina in Van Morrison’s achingly beautiful song.
Finding their voices
One of the first songs I learned to sing in four-part harmony was a Beach Boys medley featuring the ballad In My Room. It made a big impression on me, as the harmonies are delicate and easy, and yet powerfully moving. I had to make it the first song the quartet in The Fifth Voice sing together, the one that makes them and their assembled company realise that their voices blend beautifully and that they could have a future as a quartet.
The song doesn’t always serve them well, however. When Ken, their eccentric vocal coach and mentor, invites them to explain what the song is about, Vince suggests ‘a bloke in a room’. Frustrated by his lack of imagination, Ken replies
Well, that certainly explains things. From the way you sang just now, I’d guess that the room is painted entirely white. Featureless. And I’d say that the bloke in question is probably wearing a straitjacket, that the walls are padded, and that the door is heavily bolted from the outside.
The book is about the search for harmony, not just in the musical sense. Ken inspires the quartet to discover a curious vocal technique called The Fifth Voice, which has the promise to deliver a prize much greater than anything they can imagine.
This idea was inspired in part by listening to harmonies on a grand scale, in the form of Spem In Alium, a 40-part Renaissance motet by Thomas Tallis. Composed in the 16th century for eight choirs of five voices each, this majestic piece is mind-blowing in its complexity and beauty, and no wonder it is widely considered to be the greatest piece of English early music.
A piece of orchestral music I return to often is The Beyondness of Things by John Barry. Barry’s late signature sound of richly textured strings and reflective, romantic melodies has a wooing effect, and I find myself drifting away whenever I listen to this piece. But it also delivers a genuine sense of beyondness, of there being more to life than the here and now. And that’s the essence of what The Fifth Voice is about. Listening to Barry helped set the tone for the metaphysical aspects of the story, as when Ken first tells the quartet about The Fifth Voice:
Listen to a top quartet ringing chords, and the room will fill with harmonic overtones. And at a purely physical level, you could say that those harmonic overtones are themselves an independent voice. A fifth voice, so to speak. But that’s only part of the story. Any competent quartet can create a fifth voice, but very few find The Fifth Voice. That’s something that goes beyond the physical. Something that comes from inside each of you. Something you have to search for.
Paul Connolly was born and brought up in Liverpool. After studying biology at Manchester University he worked for many years as a technical author in the computer industry, the foundation of his writing career. Paul sings bass with award-winning a cappella group The Royal Harmonics, which provided the inspiration for his debut novel, The Fifth Voice. He lives in Berkshire, visits Lundy Island as often as possible, supports Everton FC, and has a grown-up daughter. He is currently working on the sequel to The Fifth Voice, and you can connect with him at www.paulconnollyauthor.com and on Twitter @ACappellaPaul. The Fifth Voice is available as a paperback and ebook.
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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is women’s fiction writer Anne Stormont @WriteAnne
Soundtrack by Rufus Wainwright, Tom Baxter, Van Morrison, Elbow, Cat Power, Neil Diamond, Louis Armstrong, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, Don Maclean, Military Wives, Blair Douglas, Greg Laswell, Bat for Lashes, Ungar and Mason
It took me almost a decade to write and publish Change of Life. It was a brush with mortality following my diagnosis with ovarian cancer in 1998, and an Arvon Foundation writing course that finally spurred me into getting my writing act together. And so, while teaching full time and putting the finishing touches to my fledgling adult children, I began.
I love music. I have eclectic tastes, from musicals, to Scottish traditional, through hard rock, and classical to contemporary. I’ve always had a soundtrack running in the background. I studied for high school and university exams with 1960s and 70s rock and pop in the background. I got through my cancer treatment to a background of songs by the Lighthouse Family and others, put together by my daughter on a mixtape – remember those?
And it has continued to be music that provides me with focus. While I’m writing, even if I’m not consciously hearing it, it’s on and it keeps me in the zone. It’s very much a mood thing for me. Much like inhaling a reminiscence-filled scent, a few bars of the right music and I’m transported.
Change of Life has two main characters, husband and wife, Tom and Rosie. The narration is in first person and Tom and Rosie take it in turns to tell their story.
Tom, being male, was a challenge to write, but it was one I relished. To get into his head it was Rufus Wainwright’s Do I Disappoint You, Tom Baxter’s My Declaration and Van Morrison’s Have I Told You Lately that did it. Tom betrays Rosie’s trust and, when their resulting separation after more than 20 years of marriage, and Rosie’s diagnosis with breast cancer threaten to rob him of his wife forever, he has to do a lot of soul-searching and face up to some difficult truths. These tracks captured both Tom’s anger and his yearning. They helped keep me ‘in character’ and to tap into the appropriate emotions.
Making the switch to Rosie’s head was helped by Elbow’s Grounds For Divorce, Cat Power’s Woman Left Lonely and Neil Diamond’s You Don’t Bring Me Flowers. She also experiences anger and yearning, but this is overlaid with the fear that her cancer may kill her. When writing these darker passages it was Louis Armstrong singing We Have All The Time In The World that helped me bring out the poignancy of her situation.
Then as the story came towards its conclusion, it was If You Want Me by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, along with And I Love You So by Don Maclean that kept me focussed and at the right emotional temperature.
For my new novel Displacement, it was mainly the Military Wives album In My Dreams that helped me set the tone. Again there are two main characters, Rachel and Jack. Two very different characters, both with their own demons, they meet in dramatic circumstances on the Isle of Skye. Rosie, a sheep farmer and writer of children’s books, is grieving for her dead soldier son, and retired policeman, Jack, is facing up to some difficult truths about himself. They begin an unlikely friendship. The story is set on Skye and in the completely contrasting, but no less dramatic landscape of Israel/ Palestine. The Soldier’s Lullaby and Sonamarg by Skye musician Blair Douglas also featured in supporting roles, as did Your Ghost by Greg Laswell. This last one captured Jack’s longing and conflict perfectly. I should also mention Wilderness by Bat for Lashes, which perfectly reflects both the natural wilderness of Skye and the Middle East and the inner wilderness of the two main characters. And finally, the Ashkovan Farewell by Ungar and Mason was the one track that broke through any resistance I felt when I came to the desk to write this novel. It just led me straight in. What more can a writer ask of their musical soundtrack?
Anne lives in the Scottish Hebrides. She can be a subversive old bat, but she maintains a kind heart. She’s about to take early retirement after 36 years as a primary school teacher. Her stories are about and for the sometimes invisible women; the 1960s feminists; women in their late 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond; thinking, feeling, loving, intelligent women. There is a strong element of romance in her books, but she’s resistant to the restrictive ‘romantic fiction’ label as she likes to think there’s more to her novels than just romance. Her first novel, Change of Life, is about to be republished under her own imprint Rowan Russell Books and, her second novel, Displacement, is due to be published at the end of May. Her work-in-progress is a children’s novel called The Silver Locket and is scheduled for release in the summer. Anne tweets as @writeanne and she blogs at http://putitinwriting.me She also writes for Words With Jam and is a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors.
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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by journalist and award-winning debut novelist Terri Giuliano Long @TGLong
Dave and I are in the car on our way home from dinner. He puts a Bruce Springsteen CD in the player, Greetings From Asbury Park. The song Growin’ Up strikes a nerve, and I ask him to hit replay. I listen to the song over and over. The song is still playing when we pull into the driveway 30 minutes later. In this song, I see Leah – a 16-year-old girl, pushing boundaries, horrifying the adults all around her. She’s just a kid, flying high, full of imagination and life, yearning for independence, trying to make her way in the world.
Dave and I have four daughters. As I’m writing the novel, they’re all teens, and I see Leah from a mother’s perspective. I love her, but she frightens me. This song opens a door, shows me another side of her. I see tremendous energy and vulnerability so deep and true that it brings tears to my eyes. I try to integrate this new understanding into her scenes, but it’s not until late in the novel, after she’s run away from home, that it pays off.
When I wrote In Leah’s Wake, songs—like Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey, Robbie Robertson’s Showdown at Big Sky and Tom Petty’s Face in the Crowd provided the emotional connection I needed to define certain scenes. The novel opens with Leah’s parents, Zoe and Will, playing poker—a metaphor I didn’t notice until the second draft, when I realized how much parenting teens resembles a poker game. Tupelo Honey spins on the player. After a spat, Will leaves the table and replaces the sweet love song with Zoe’s favorite song, Showdown at Big Sky. That night, alone, waiting for Leah, he listens to A Face In The Crowd, a haunting song that speaks to his profound loneliness, as he sits by the window, imagining the unthinkable horror that may have befallen his child.
Often, the instrumentals, the sound, the tone—the emotional energy—of a song put me into the scene. Paranoid Android, from Okay Computer by Radiohead, I’m On Fire, by Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, Stardog Champion, from Stardog Champion by Mother Love Bone, I Loves You Porgy from Porgy and Bess, by Keith Jarrett on the CD The Melody At Night With You, and Misguided Angel from The Trinity Session by the Cowboy Junkies—all set an emotional stage for a scene I was working on.
In the lyric
Occasionally, the lyrics spoke to me, as was the case with Madonna’s Don’t Cry For Me Argentina, from the film Evita, released in 1996, a few years before I began In Leah’s Wake. Early in the book, Zoe is in the car, on her way home from work. She’s thinking about Leah, all the changes that have occurred of late. Leah’s behavior drives her out of her mind. She also feels guilty, selfish for putting her own needs and desires ahead of her family. ‘I love you,’ Madonna sings, echoing Zoe’s feelings. ‘And I hope you love me.’
The best writing moments occurred when – as with Growin’ Up – a song moved me emotionally and its lyrics gave me insight. Our house at the time was wired for sound. One morning, when I stepped out of the shower, Oasis’s Champagne Supernova from What’s the Story? Morning Glory, was playing. I was working on a pivotal scene: Leah’s 12-year-old sister, Justine, asks for a cigarette and Leah, hesitant at first, sees her sister as her equal for the first time and allows her to smoke. The song’s textured ethereal feel, for me, mirrored Leah’s state of mind. The lyrics, about getting high, people changing, felt right. The metaphor gave me psychological clarity, a window into Leah’s heart.
As I progressed through draft after draft, music, which had initially inspired me, took on a defining role in the book. Scenes where the characters were listening to music began to different feel from scenes that were virtually silent, except for the dialogue. To me, those silent scenes feel stark, and emotionally raw. Maybe that’s why they so often end with an argument or a crucial event that, to one of the characters, represents catastrophic change.
Without music, In Leah’s Wake would be a very different book. How do you identify with music? When you read a book, do you relate to songs or find them a distraction?
Terri Giuliano Long is a contributing writer for IndieReader and Her Circle eZine. She has written news and feature articles for numerous publications, including the Boston Globe and the Huffington Post. She lives with her family on the East Coast and teaches at Boston College. In Leah’s Wake is her debut novel, winner of the Coffee Time Reviewer Recommend Award, the Book Bundlz 2011 Book Pick, the Book Bundlz Book Club Favorite, 2012 – First Place and nominated for the Global eBook award. For more information, find her on her website. Or connect on Facebook, Twitter or Blog.
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Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by Kim Wright, author of Love In Mid Air
For some reason, I’ve always had a penchant for songs that sound upbeat on the surface but that have, when you stop to listen, dark or menacing lyrics. When I was writing Love in Mid Air, I listened to Nick Lowe’s Cruel to Be Kind and I also liked Kryptonite by 3 Doors Down. It makes sense, because the novel is about a woman who seems to have the perfect life, but who has this sarcastic, discontent, wounded inner voice.
Manic energy and heartbreak
I read somewhere that there’s only one theme in literature, which is ‘Things are not what they seem’. Maybe it’s not the only theme in literature, but it’s a good one, which might be why I like songs where the melody and the lyrics don’t quite match. Lately I’ve fallen in love with Valerie by Amy Winehouse, especially the live version. It’s the epitome of using manic energy to cover up heartbreak and it punches me smack in the gut every time I hear it.
In my head, my heroine Elyse had a theme song, which was The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes by Elvis Costello. It seemed to speak to Elyse’s obsession with turning 40 and her sense that time was running out – and the fact she’s so determined to seize life that she’s almost prepared to make a pact with the devil. The reference never made it into the book, but I’m working on the sequel now, which is told from the point of view of Elyse’s best friend Kelly, and there’s a scene where Kelly comes downstairs one morning and finds Elyse in the kitchen frying eggs and singing the Costello song.
For the wicked scenes
Sex scenes require something really different. Usually I write them in public spaces, like a Starbucks or sushi bar, and I have absolutely no theory on that one. Having a crowd around me seems to break down my inhibitions, although I worry sometimes that I’ll leave my laptop to go to the bathroom and come back to find I’ve been arrested on some sort of morals charge. When I’m home I play either Wicked Game by Chris Isaak – who I met one time and, incidentally, he’s just as hot as his song – or, if the scene calls for something more domestic or tender, Warm Love by Van Morrison. Van Morrison might be a patron saint for writers in general. His lyrics are terrific.
When I was doing a lot of magazine writing, we always worked way ahead of schedule – I was writing articles about the dangers of sunburns in December and tips for New Year’s entertaining in July. Music was a way for me to trick myself into the seasonal switch. In Love in Mid Air, Elyse throws a big Christmas party and I was working on that scene down at my mom’s beach house in the dead of summer. I specifically remember listening to Diana Krall singing Sleigh Ride one afternoon while I was walking my dog on the beach and it was like 100 degrees.
Headspace and rituals
It’s funny how often writers use these weird little tricks to get themselves into a certain headspace- to reset their thoughts to another place or time or mood. Developing rituals around your writing seems to be a key part of the job and I’ve often thought that the writers who claim they never get blocked are those who have created very specific signals to their subconscious that say ‘Sit down and shut up, because it’s now time to write’. Music can be a big part of this; it’s like a shortcut between certain parts of the brain.
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What is The Undercover Soundtrack?Sleeve notes here
For the soundtrack of My Memories of a Future Life, you'll need Chopin's Sonata in B Minor, Rachmaninov preludes, lashings of Grieg's piano concerto in A minor and The Clash's Rock the Kasbah (they go together well).
You'll also need Samuel Barber's Dover Beach on piano, although that doesn't actually exist so do the best you can.
And the novel's undercover pieces. You can find them here
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- 'My Memories of a Future Life is a poignant story steeped with melancholy, edged with a desperate hope, and twisted throughout with darkness and humor'
- 'Some of the sharpest writing I've read in a long while'
- 'The feel of a modern-day witch trial with a tense romance'
- 'Clever when you think about it afterwards; haunting and engrossing while you're reading'